Nov 11 2013

Reprogramming Your Junk DNA

Every now and then I come across a stunning example of pseudoscience, an exemplar, almost raising pseudoscience to an art form. Some pieces of scientific nonsense read almost like poetry. Such examples make me wonder what is going on in the mind of the pseudoscientist – to me, the most fascinating question.

One example I recently came across is the idea that we can reprogram our DNA through words alone. Just about every red-flag of pseudoscience is flying high with this one. Here is the theory in a nutshell:

Only 10% of our DNA is being used for building proteins. It is this subset of DNA that is of interest to western researchers and is being examined and categorized. The other 90% are considered “junk DNA.” The Russian researchers, however, convinced that nature was not dumb, joined linguists and geneticists in a venture to explore those 90% of “junk DNA.” Their results, findings and conclusions are simply revolutionary! According to them, our DNA is not only responsible for the construction of our body but also serves as data storage and in communication. The Russian linguists found that the genetic code, especially in the apparently useless 90%, follows the same rules as all our human languages. To this end they compared the rules of syntax (the way in which words are put together to form phrases and sentences), semantics (the study of meaning in language forms) and the basic rules of grammar. They found that the alkalines of our DNA follow a regular grammar and do have set rules just like our languages. So human languages did not appear coincidentally but are a reflection of our inherent DNA.

The 10% figure reminds me of the trope that we only use 10% of our brains (which is completely untrue). The idea is appealing because believers in magic can fill the remaining 90% with whatever they need to give some superficial plausibility to their magic. Now DNA is the new brain.

As a very interesting aside, the concept of Junk DNA has recently had some controversy. What is not controversial is that only about 1.2% of the base pairs in human DNA code directly for proteins. The rest of the genome is “non-coding DNA.” The popular term “Junk DNA” has been applied to non-coding DNA to convey the basic idea that this DNA does not do anything – it’s like the closet full of junk you can’t throw out because there may be something useful in their. Unused bits of DNA accumulate in the genome over evolutionary time and there really isn’t a mechanism for trimming it down.

From the beginning of the concept of non-coding DNA, however, geneticists knew that some non-coding regions were involved in regulating gene expression. So some non-coding DNA is regulatory. The question is – how much? This is a difficult question to answer, as the more we explore the function of the genome the more complexity we are likely to find.

Recently the ENCODE project has sought to discover how much of the genome has function. This has only deepened the controversy. To summarize the current state of things, a current estimate of the percent of the genome that is regulatory is 8-9%, added to the 1.2% that is coding, and you have your 10% figure. However, that is likely a conservative estimate. At the upper end there are estimates that as much as 20% of the genome may be functional.

Along, however, comes the ENCODE project and they are now claiming that 80% of the genome is functional. There are serious problems with their analysis, however, which has garnered heavy criticism. The primary problem is that they define as “functional” any part of the genome that does anything – without demonstrating that what it does serves any purpose. One critic gave as an analogy that the heart makes beating sounds. The ENCODE project would then list making sounds as a function of the heart, even though heart sounds are incidental to its function.

As a further aside, creationists have keyed in on this debate for their own purposes. Since “junk” DNA is evidence of our evolutionary past, creationists have always tried to dismiss it, so they love the ENCODE project’s liberal definition of “function.”

Getting back to reprogramming DNA, the author of the above quote refers to dubious research claiming that our DNA is a language. Well, coding DNA certainly follows a language, but the analogy to any human language is superficial. Non-coding DNA has a variety of patterns, including long stretches where a short segment is repeated over and over. These segments have no analogy to language. It seems there was a great deal of cherry picking and creative interpretation to argue that DNA is like a language.

The author then leaps from this poor and tortured analogy to the conclusion that therefore human languages developed because of the language-like structure of DNA. Such fanciful leaps are a hallmark of pseudoscience.

They go on to argue that because DNA is like a language, you can talk to it (in “the human” language) and by talking you can reprogram the DNA. This is because the DNA has “frequencies” and your voice has “frequencies.” See how that works.

“Frequencies” is definitely a new favorite of pseudoscientific technobabble. It sounds sciencey but is used in a meaningless way – another common feature of pseudoscience. He relies heavily on the research of Peotr Garjajev, who claims to have research showing that DNA can be reprogrammed.

Here we have claims for what would be several stunning breakthroughs, none of which are supported by a paper trail of peer-reviewed replicated research. He is not building his castle on the sand, he’s building it in the clouds.

But of course, the purpose of such nonsense is to provide superficial plausibility to pure magical nonsense, and the new age crowd has of course seized upon this junk research to vindicate all their claims for psi phenomenon, self-healing, whatever you want.

It all reads like bad science fiction – but bad fiction that knows how to play to people’s desires. It seems like reprogramming DNA is going to become a staple of the new age and magical healing crowd for some time.

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